Venue: The Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Production Run: Thur 30 Nov 2017 - Sat 13 Jan 2018

Production Reviewed: Tue 5 Dec 2017 (Press Night)

As a production, The Hundred and One Dalmatians is much akin to its titular puppet creations. Bursting with charm, character and invention, if a little rough around the edges, with the gaps and joins (mostly deliberately) on full display. Central Dalmatian Pongo’s (Oliver Wellington) temperamental right ear, misbehaving and flapping over the character’s head throughout in the performance reviewed, is a neat analogy for the various slightly over-ambitious action sequences which are similarly wobbly or otherwise not behaving quite as they aught be. 

Yes, there’s a definite sense throughout Dalmatians that it occasionally represents ambition over execution, but if anything this only goes to lend the show an even greater sense of endearment and appeal. 

You can easily forgive the odd floppy ear, underwhelming musical sequence or wonky segue when everything else is brimming with such irrepressible heart and humour.

Perhaps most enjoyable is the fidelity with which Debbie Isitt’s adaptation sticks to Dodie Smith’s beloved novel. This is not the streamlined, sugar-coated Disneyfication of either the 1961 animated classic or its 1996 live action re-imagining. Sure, the general overarching story remains the same - the villainous Cruella De Vil (Gloria Onitiri) kidnaps a group of innocent Dalmatian puppies after eyeing them up as inspiration for her latest wickedly bespoke fur coat, meaning it is up to their canine parents to save the day - but the show, like the novel, is a little darker, delves a little deeper, and rounds out the cast with a broader supporting cast of characters (such as the noble Perdita, once again restored here to her more interesting role from the book).

That’s not to say it isn’t family friendly, though. Far from it - much of the second Act’s humour in particularly is decidedly slapstick and child-friendly, with goons Jasper and Saul Baddun (the physical comedic brilliance of Lewis Griffin and Luke Murphy) offering up plenty of funny for younger audiences, and you’re never too far away from a character uttering a ‘poo’ here or a ‘fart’ there. Round it off with an overall feel-good atmosphere and a suitably festive finale, and there’s no reason your own pups should be anything less than jubilant come curtain down.

The real stars here, though, are Cruella and the dogs themselves. Which, really, is as it should be in any production of Dalmatians. Puppetry designer and director Jimmy Grimes, who cut his teeth on such excellence as War Horse on stage, offers up some beautifully characterful work. From shaggy Sheepdogs to yapping Chihuahas, imposing Great Danes to tiny newborn Dalmatian pups, the puppets themselves are wonderfully yet simply designed, and all brilliantly nuanced in their movements and mannerisms. They’re puppeteered brilliantly, too, with some standout turns from Oliver Wellington, Morgan Philpott and Mei Mac in particular (with Philpott deserving additional credit for making at least one of the human Dearly's likeable and funny). If occasionally it can take a split second or two to register which puppet is talking, particularly when the stage is quite literally littered with puppies, its a small price to pay for the charming fusion of actor and puppet that is rarely off stage.

And, thankfully, more often than not when they do leave the stage, they are making way for Gloria Onitiri’s fabulous re-interpretation of the iconic Cruella De Vil. Like the show as a whole, there’s more on show here than Disney allowed - Onitiri’s take on the character somehow both more wretched and theatrical, yet strangely vulnerable and desperate, too. When you inherit such a well-known role and are stepping into the shoes (and furs) of performers it would be so easy to emulate, credit must go to Onitiri and director Tessa Walker for offering up such a fresh, funny, unique and interesting take on the villainess. When you find yourself asking if you are actually beginning to feel sorry for a character who has gleefully confessed to drowning kittens, you know you’re in good hands.

The West End star also gets a couple of opportunities to showcase her powerful voice, which she certainly makes the absolute most of, even if it is unfortunate that she isn’t given better numbers to work with. In fact, the show’s implementation of music as a whole is one of its weakest links, seemingly unsure whether it wants to be a musical or not, and, sadly, the tunes that we do get from James Frewer not making a particularly compelling argument for it to be one.

There’s so much to enjoy and be won over by in The Hundred and One Dalmatians, though, and clearly so much creativity and passion poured into it, that even if it does sometimes overshoot its ambitions, it still ends up being a really lovely, family-friendly piece. Yes, it’s a little wonky in places, but that’s all part of the charm, and with a wickedly unique and fresh spin on Cruella that audiences of all ages will love to hate (and maybe even feel a little bit sorry for), a host of lovable animal characters that are all beautifully puppeteered, and an overall lightness and warmth to the whole affair that is almost impossible to not be won over by, it comes as a very easy recommendation for this Christmas period, particularly for those all Panto’d out and looking to get their tails wagging at something a little different this year.

RATING - ★★★★

Tickets: 0121 236 4455​​​  / Official Website: click​